Smita Patil belongs to a generation of actresses, including Shabana Azmi and, like her, is strongly associated with the radically political cinema of the 1970s. Her work includes films with parallel cinema directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Mrinal Sen as well as forays into the more commercial Hindi Film Industry cinema of Mumbai. Patil was working as a TV news reader and was also an accomplished photographer when Shyam Benegal discovered her.
She was an alumna of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In 1977, she won the National Award for ‘Best Actress’ for her performance in the Hindi film Bhumika. In her films, Patil’s character often represents an intelligent femininity that stands in relief against the conventional background of male-dominated cinema (films like Bhumika, Umbartha, and Bazaar). Smita Patil was also a women’s rights activist and became famous for her roles in films that portrayed women as capable and empowered.
“I remained committed to small cinema for about five years … I refused all commercial offers. Around 1977-78, the small cinema movement started picking up and they needed names. I was unceremoniously dropped from a couple of projects. This was a very subtle thing but it affected me a lot. I told myself that here I am and I have not bothered to make money. I have turned down big, commercial offers because of my commitment to small cinema and what have I got in return? If they want names I’ll make a name for myself. So I started and took whatever came my way.”
Smita Patil as Sonbai in Mirch Masala, her last film role.
In time she was accepted by commercial filmmakers and from Raj Khosla and Ramesh Sippy to B.R. Chopra, they all agreed that she was “excellent”. Her fans, too, grew with her newfound stardom. Patil’s glamorous roles in her more commercial films—such as Shakti and Namak Halaal — revealed the permeable boundaries between “serious” cinema and “Hindi Cinema” masala in the Hindi film industry.
Her association with artistic cinema remained strong, however. Her arguably greatest (and unfortunately final) role came when Smita re-teamed with Ketan Mehta to play the feisty and fiery Sonbai in Mirch Masala (1987). Smita won raves for playing a spirited spice-factory worker who stands up against a lecherous petty official.